Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Keys to Lowering Reactor Cost: Labor Costs

I have continued to work on the potential labor cost savings of from factory manufacture of small LFTR's. In a later post I noted:
. Researchers found that work disorganization was a significant cause of conventional reactor costs. Over 25 percent of workers time in reactor construction projects was wasted by work disorganization. Shifting labor from a construction site to a factory would help to solve the work flow problem.
Labor cost are of course a major source of reactor construction expenses. It was recently reported that the on site construction of AP-1000 reactors require from between from 16 to 20 million man hours to complete. The labor required for parts and module manufacture must be added to the cost. I have already suggested that as much work as possible be transfered to a factory where mass production techniques could be used. These techniques could include labor saving automation in the manufacture of standard reactor parts, and the extensive use of of robots in reactor assembly. These are standard well understood aspects of modern manufacturing and should not require further elaboration.

The work force in the reactor factory should be well trained and compensated accordingly. Assembly line workers should be understood to be part of the quality control, assembly technique and reactor design improvements teams, and both encouraged and motivated to make contributions to efforts of those teams.

In addition to the factory team there should be a site development team, whose task is to analyze site conditions, develop site plans, using as much as possible site design information stored in the sight development data base. Once the site conditions are understood, and a plan developed, the site would be quickly developed. The site development should be completed on the same day that the assembled reactor is shipped. The third stage would be reactor assembly and site completion. Again the highest possible degree of assembly automation should be used. Both of the onsite teams should be be part of the manufacturer's quality control, assembly technique and reactor design improvements teams, and both encouraged and motivated to make contributions to efforts of those teams.

The keys to controlling labor cost in reactor construction include using modern mass manuring techniques, carful organization of working activities, the organization of experience based data bases drawing on workers experience, from which best practices can be identified, and the inclusion of all workers as part of management teams. Labor practices should have an over all goal of creating a well-compensated, high morale workforce that is efficient, loyal, productive, and creative. That is an important part of lowering labor costs.


David Walters said...

All interesting points.

With big reactors you run into certain issues that shave advantages off factory vs site construction.

Factory production has some advantages. But often they are more one of convenience. Take turbines. All turbines (and generators for that matter) are built to order. They have standard designs of course, and many parts are factory produced through the use of numerical controlled machines and milling centers, but the based 'construction' of a turbine is hand-assembled.

And, even then, it's done 'in parts', with the rotor shipped seperatly, the upper and lower halves of the turbine, etc. Even large 4Kv motors, commonly used for large pumps in power plants, are made-to-order and hand 'wound'.

But generally what gives the advantage to factory vs site construction is the convenience of parts, use of computers to find those parts, protection against weather, access to tool & die maintaince, etc.

I think the advantage of small vs big is obvious in NPP construction but the costs still have to be sorted out.

For example, are 100 10MW generators cheaper than one big spank'n new GE 1000 MW generator? I wouldn't be so sure.


Charles Barton said...

David I am building on two assumptions. The first, based on a simple literature review, is that there are no demonstrable economies of scale in reactor construction. The second, derived from modern manufacturing, is that factory production is usually more efficient than custom manufacture - and that would include making a more efficient use of labor. Factory production enables the use of labor saving technology, including automatic parts manufacture and the use of robots in large scale assembly. There are experience based savings coupled with large scale serial
manufacture. The choice of small rather than large reactors is dictated by the transportation requirements of centralized production, and the desirability of being able to set up power producing reactors quickly, once the leave the factory.

Charles Barton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


The small vs. big issue is a solved issue by default in the short term. The short term meaning 10 to 20 years in the nuclear industry. There are no small designs ready for production any time soon, except for submarine PWRs which are not readily applicable to civilian power because of their very special HEU (cermet?) fuels. Rod Adams would be the right man to fill in the details. All the small size designs - PBMR, GT-MHR, IRIS, S-PRISM, even the Toshiba 4S - are all not only new designs but quite literally first-of-their-class new designs with no predecessors in industrial operation, while new reactors like AP1000 are new designs but also direct, evolutionary descendants of previous designs (System80+ for AP1000). Much easier.

So, for the time being and probably the next two decades, it's big PWRs vs. big BWRs for large scale deployment. End of story, alas. If we want that to change and bring quickly new designs to production, we have to go back to the heydays of the AEC when the US gov was in the nuclear reactor design business as much as the big suppliers. It's particularly true for liquid fluoride thorium reactors or liquid chloride fast reactors, which are very promising but also completely experimental.

In my view, the most important factor for the next round of reactor is the type of purchasing agreement between the utilities and the suppliers : costs-plus contracts as in the 70s and 80s or turn-key contracts on a preset design with the full responsibilities for any delay or overcosts in the lap of the supplier.

The superiority of turn-key vs. cost-plus was clearly proven in the 70s and 80s with the example of France vs. the US (or worse, the disastrous UK nuclear program). But the past is the past and turn-key wasn't applicable to the US anyway because of the insane licensing process with regulations changing from day to day, written while the reactors were being built. That has changed and, hopefully, most of the new reactors in the US will be turn-key.

Turn-key is a big difference. It's not just that it is in the main supplier's interest to deliver on time and within budget. It's also that the main supplier is in charge of everything with no meddling from the utility. Ideally, the interaction with the utility is 1) sign a check and, 5 years later, 2) receive your reactor fueled, humming and running and ready to go. The main contractor manages completely the rest of the chain and, in particular, can establish stable teams within its own structure and with its subcontractors, the same people and corporations doing the same exact job with the same equipments on each plant, one after the other, moving from site to site.

There you have your factory efficiency.

It's just that the factory is moving from one site to the next. But make no mistake, it's a factory.

Charles Barton said...

Anon, I have two words to as a respond to this argument, Manhattan Project. In 1941 the first attempt to build a reactor failed. By the end of 1942 the first successful reactor was in operation. A second much larger reactor was built in 1943, and even before it was in operation the design for serial production of reactors of different designs. And construction of three more were complete by 1945. Between 1943 and 1945 designs over 20 different types of radically different reactors were developed, and two experimental prototypes were built, one of which was in Canada.

I grew up in the shadow of the Manhattan project. I know what can be done, given a high national commitment to a goal. Why should we want to commit to the goal? To save our own hind ends! The world energy economy is in deep trouble. Not only are we running out of oil, but further burning of fossil fuel will bring about drastic changes in climate.

I believe that Large LWR's are not the answer. They take far to long to build, and they are far to expensive. If the way you do business is not solving your problems, you have a choice. Either change the way you business, of prepare to go under.

Anon if you cannot conceive of the reality of what I propose. it is a failure of your vision, not mine. As I said, I grew up in the shadow of the Manhattan Project, I know what is possible.

Anonymous said...

What I am about to say will not be popular with your readership, since most of them make their living from reactor operation and maintenance. But since the Lftr is simple and safer than the light water reactors it will replace, it could be completely automated.

With most of the self regulating heat production buried underground, it would be similar to a geothermal power plant. There would be some people around to watch the automation, but for the most part, the payroll and benefit costs would be a small fraction of the current breed of reactors and fossil fuel plants. The utilities who buy the Lftr will find this feature most attractive.

The Lftr is truly a reactor of the people and for the people, providing them with the lowest cost of power possible, and it will be a guarantor of their prosperity.


Charles Barton said...

Axil, i am aware that LFTR's would not need operating staff. Indeed the beauty of the LFTR is its ability to operate itself, and respond to energy demands through a design that is based on the Laws of nature. We have a reactor that can shut itself off when energy demand drops, and can return back on line resonding to a demand for full power, as fast as the turbine can throttle up/ All without a single soul lifting a finger, or even a computer issuing a command.


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